Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria takes a close look at Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy, noting Obama’s emphasis on realism, in sharp contrast to John McCain and George W. Bush, who have embraced the wide-eyed idealism of the neoconservatives.
The rap on Barack Obama, at least in the realm of foreign policy, has been that he is a softheaded idealist who thinks that he can charm America’s enemies. John McCain and his campaign, conservative columnists and right-wing bloggers all paint a picture of a liberal dreamer who wishes away the world’s dangers. Even President Bush stepped into the fray earlier this year to condemn the Illinois senator’s willingness to meet with tyrants as naive. Some commentators have acted as if Obama, touring the Middle East and Europe this week on his first trip abroad since effectively wrapping up the nomination, is in for a rude awakening.
These critiques, however, are off the mark. Over the course of the campaign against Hillary Clinton and now McCain, Obama has elaborated more and more the ideas that would undergird his foreign policy as president. What emerges is a world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist. It is interesting to note that, at least in terms of the historical schools of foreign policy, Obama seems to be the cool conservative and McCain the exuberant idealist.
Just as with his other policies, Obama takes a much more nuanced approach to the world, recognizing that the world is a complex place. In contrast, McCain seems to embrace W’s simplistic “good vs. evil” approach to most situation.
Obama rarely speaks in the moralistic tones of the current Bush administration. He doesn’t divide the world into good and evil even when speaking about terrorism. He sees countries and even extremist groups as complex, motivated by power, greed and fear as much as by pure ideology. His interest in diplomacy seems motivated by the sense that one can probe, learn and possibly divide and influence countries and movements precisely because they are not monoliths. When speaking to me about Islamic extremism, for example, he repeatedly emphasized the diversity within the Islamic world, speaking of Arabs, Persians, Africans, Southeast Asians, Shiites and Sunnis, all of whom have their own interests and agendas.
Obama never uses the soaring language of Bush’s freedom agenda, preferring instead to talk about enhancing people’s economic prospects, civil society and—his key word—”dignity.” He rejects Bush’s obsession with elections and political rights, and argues that people’s aspirations are broader and more basic—including food, shelter, jobs. “Once these aspirations are met,” he told The New York Times’s James Traub, “it opens up space for the kind of democratic regimes we want.” This is a view of democratic development that is slow, organic and incremental, usually held by conservatives.